Police, play-offs and Angels

In his second contribution to Groundhoppers, Michael Grimes swaps the modern charms of Spurs for the more homely pleasures of Super Play-off action at Imber Court.

“Ello, ‘ello, ‘ello, what ‘ave we ‘ere then?”

“It’s the Super Play-off Final officer”

“What’s that all about then?”

“Well both teams have won their play-off finals but are still not promoted, so they have to play again”.

“So, we won our play-offs and we’re still not promoted?”

“Yes, officer.”

“You’re nicked son!”

Due to league restructuring, teams at level 3 and 4 face the farcical scenario of winning their play-offs and then playing off again. I’m not going to explain it all here, there are better explanations elsewhere. Instead, it’s off to see a battle for a place in National League South as Metropolitan Police take on Tonbridge Angels at Imber Court in the leafy suburbs of Thames Ditton.

action 3
Met Police (blue) prepare to take a corner against Tonbridge Angels.

It’s a historic spot, close to Hampton Court and redolent of royalty. Henry VIII had his hunting grounds here; the Metropolitan Police bought it as a sports ground in 1919 and the reworked facilities were officially opened by the future King George VI in 1929. In between, law and order became an issue; 18th century highwaymen plagued the Portsmouth road and in 1792 a group of 80 locals formed a group ‘for the protection of persons and property’. The Met Police, Britain’s first official force, was still almost 40 years away from feeling its first collar.

The imposing clubhouse at Imber Court.

Today, highwaymen banished, there’s a substantial brick building, later extended, that looks as though it might date from the 1920s – the architecture has echoes of a police station built for London’s rapidly-expanding suburbs and the bright blue police logo over the door gives it the feel of the nick. As I came in, I couldn’t help looking out for a desk sergeant. No need for nerves, though, in place of the cells the complex boasts a gym, pool and other sports facilities as well as a club house / banqueting hall with the feel of an old-style roadhouse pub. Originally all this was set up for Met Police officers; now it’s open to all, although the force still provides some funding for the football club.

imber court crowd
Fans at the Super Play-off game at Imber Court.

However ‘super’ this year’s play-offs have been, there’s no denying that they draw a crowd. The clubhouse was pretty full even before the visiting Tonbridge fans came in; no Angels these, with their cries of “We hate the Old Bill!” The staff smile quietly; maybe they’ve heard it all before. While the football crowd warmed up with some TV play-off action from the Championship, a few club regulars popped in after tennis or squash to say goodbye until next week.

beer garden
Barbeques and a beer garden on Super Play-off day.

Outside there was a holiday atmosphere: barbeques near the entrance, beers in the garden and the sun breaking through the clouds. Inside, it’s a tidy stadium. Old-style floodlight pylons from the 1970s, terracing on three sides (with a cover over the Mounted Branch End – not a name you often hear at the football, but a nod to the ground’s original use as a training facility for police horses and riders). The tidy main stand, seating 300, was built in 1994, replacing the 1923 original. Burgers were on sale for £3:50 – decent food, decent price – and there were even slices of home-baked cake on offer. This is suburban Surrey, after all.

Travelling Tonbridge fans were there in numbers, out-numbering home fans, and in good voice. The Angels started the brighter, but it was the Police who took the lead on 18 minutes after a good passing move saw Chislett curl one into the top corner. Sound the sirens in celebration.

Rejoicing Angels stage a pitch invasion after Tonbridge wins promotion to National League South.

The second half saw Tonbridge tie the scores with a deflected free kick, but the Police were back in front within five minutes. More sirens, but the case wasn’t closed. Into the last five minutes and Theobalds equalized again. Having got out of jail, the Angels ascended in extra time. Derry’s back post header in the 97th minute settled matters. No robbery here; despite leaving it late, the better and stronger team won.

Game details
Imber Court, Thames Ditton, England
May 11, 2019, National League South Super Play-off.
Met Police 2 (Chislett, Robertson) Tonbridge Angels 3 (Lee, Theobalds, Derry) AET
Att: 1,268

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